ALBANY, N.Y. — It would have been hard to think that Fairfield would have been standing on the big stage in the MAAC semifinals on Sunday afternoon, with a nine point lead on the conference favorite, even six months ago.
The Stags entered the season picked eighth by the coaches and had a slew of newcomers, players and coaches. Sydney Johnson preached an up and down style and his players responded, reaching fifth place in the MAAC and winning a game on Saturday night over Saint Peter’s.
The joy of 16 hours ago off their thrilling win over the Peacocks appeared to carry over, for a few moments in the first half when the Stags opened a lead as large as nine. But the Hawks answered with a punch of their own and, after the remnants of a 19-3 run, slowly took hold of the game.
“We closed the gap, the difference between Fairfield and Monmouth I think we closed that, but they’re really really good and obviously the gap wasn’t closed enough,” Johnson said after the game. “I thought they really played championship basketball, so we’ll see how their Monday night looks, but I wish them the best and refuse to be disappointed in my own guys, just couldn’t get it done today.”
But as the game unraveled it was not about the Stags performance. They mounted a comeback, going on a 9-0 run to cut the lead down at a point, but it was about the journey. Johnson admitted he might get “overly emotional” in describing how this team has embraced him.
“They bought in to me at a time where there weren’t a lot of people doing that,” Johnson said. “I was looking in their eye in July and really working them hard in practice and sometimes on the football field in sprints because we had to get better.”
“I see a group of kids that bought in to me and that’s the character of them. They bought into me at time where it was a little dim and now look how bright this future is, so I think that has a lot to do with our kids and that’s why I’m living the dream. I’m thrilled to be around them.”
Marcus Gilbert, who finished his final MAAC tournament game with 10 points, said that he had sense that their group had effected Johnson so much.
“I remember back, my freshman year, we had three great seniors they set the tone for us and how we have to go about our business,” Gilbert said. “We don’t like talking about the past, but we had a few, a couple of bad years, but I feel like this year, our seniority like our leadership has really helped us improve much better than the past couple of years. I just feel like it’s very important we went down fighting.”
Sophomore Tyler Nelson, who also finished with 10 points Sunday, said he has noticed how hard Johnson and the staff have pushed them this season.
“He loves his job and every day he’s in there giving us everything he’s got that day and I think that’s a huge credit to him,” Nelson said. “I think he’s really pushed us every single day, he’s never laid back on us for one day, he’s always been there pushing us and I think that says a lot about him as a coach and a person, just trying to get the best out of his players.”
“He’s done a great job with that, so I think we are a way better team than years in the past obviously, but I think a lot of that has to do with him, his recruiting and the way he’s been coaching us.”
Johnson said they would like to be considered for a postseason tournament, whether it is the CIT, CBI or Vegas 16 is yet to be clear, but with a 19-13 record, he hopes the Stags can continue their season.
“We will gladly accept a postseason bid, I think we’ve earned that,” Johnson said. “It will be one of the smaller national tournaments, but we’ll be tremendously excited to honor this team and keep our season going.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2015-16 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.